Decline in Tacoma schools enrollment seen

School enrollment in Tacoma will decline gradually over the next decade, a report to the Tacoma School Board projects.

That’s despite a recent uptick in countywide births and rising enrollments in 15 Pierce County school districts, said Kirkland demographer William L. Kendrick.

Kendrick’s report, delivered last week, presented a mixed message for the county’s largest school district.

Tacoma’s enrollment has dropped over the past few decades, from a peak of 32,726 in 2001 to 28,148 in 2013.

But Kendrick said the decline has slowed since 2007. The urban school district’s share of countywide public school enrollment has remained steady at around 22 percent since that time.

“Even though enrollment is declining, your market share is the same,” he said. “You are holding your own.”

Kendrick’s figures exclude high school students enrolled in some specialized programs, such as Running Start students who take all their classes through local community colleges.

Kendrick said the biggest growth in school-age populations once again appears to be headed for the county’s suburbs, where housing starts are climbing out of a recessionary slump.

Those are the same school districts, with reserves of undeveloped land, where school populations exploded during the housing boom of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Public school enrollment countywide registered a net gain of 430 students between October 2012 and October 2013. Most of that growth was centered in three suburban school districts, according to Kendrick’s report: Puyallup gained 379 students, Sumner added 239 and Bethel 195.

In contrast, Tacoma posted a net loss of 194 students and the Peninsula School District, centered in Gig Harbor, lost 120, Kendrick reported. The White River School District, based in Buckley, showed a net loss of 136 students over the year.

Kendrick’s calculations are based on a variety of measurements, including historic school enrollment data, birth rates, overall population growth projections, home sales and other factors.

Kendrick, who draws up enrollment forecasts for many school districts throughout the region, said many have asked him for his thoughts on whether charter schools will have a big impact on enrollment.

The publicly funded but independently run schools are a new factor in Washington state since voters approved them in 2012. Eight such schools have been approved statewide, including three that plan to open in Tacoma in 2015.

“We will have to see how that plays out,” Kendrick said. “Charter schools are kind of a wild card so far.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635